My teeming readers, I am writing this on the first Wednesday of the new year and wondering whether you have begun yet to pave hell with your annual good resolutions?
On one New Year's Eve long ago the perceptive Mark Twain wrote: "Now is the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds..."
Mark Twain seems to say that it is futile to make these sorts of vice-combating resolutions, and all of us, poor weak things, know of this futility.
But wait! What if there is more to the human activity of resolution-making than whether or not we succeed in keeping our promises to ourselves for longer than Twain's prescribed 30 days?
My latest Paris Review offers a timely discussion of what those household names Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had to say about resolutions.
Yes, wit-genius Mark Twain is always rib-ticklingly good fun to read, on anything, but on a subject this important we should pay attention to such giants of high, clear thought as mighty Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and towering German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
So for Paris Review John Kaag and Skye C. Cleary briefly entertain the thought that we shouldn't bother with the effort of making resolutions and instead might as well "go along with the flow of life like a carefree leaf on the surface of a happily bubbling stream".
"But Kierkegaard," they alert us, "would argue that such a metaphor is deceptive: we would be akin to a stone hurled across the surface of the water, which 'skips lightly for a time, but as soon as it stops skipping, instantly sinks down into the depths'. Without commitments, we risk disappearing into the existential abyss. A life that lacks purpose creates anxiety. A meaningful life, Kierkegaard suggests, is one in which we actively assert ourselves in order to live more fully."
"It's all well and good to make promises," the Review bustles on "but there's still the challenge of keeping them."
"Friedrich Nietzsche suggests that what differentiates humans from other creatures is that we have 'the right to make promises'. Making promises addresses a fundamental aspect of our humanity: that each of us is but also somehow isn't the person we will become in the future. A promise is a way of laying claim to an uncertain future. It is a way of projecting oneself into the coming months, protecting a commitment that may be impossible to keep. Why does a nonhuman animal not make promises? Most don't have [as we humans have] a conception of themselves as individuals or a vested sense of identity. Nietzsche's suggestion is that we ought to keep making resolutions - heartfelt, honest-to-God promises - lest we devolve into an animal-like state."
Sharing Nietzsche's human and humanising view I have as usual made a bouquet of resolutions while resigned (for like you my dear, human brothers and sisters, I am a poor weak thing, lacking resolve) to breaking some of them.
But I feel struttingly confident about keeping a few of them.
I resolve to continue to haunt the National Arboretum, this year walking at least once in each of its 100 forests, talking to its trees and listening respectfully to what their whispering, rattling, swishing, susurrating leaves have to say to me.
My resolution to ignore all news of the banal and brutalising pageant of the federal election campaign by instead reading gigantic, soul-improving novels is already under way (for I'm told the election campaign itself is already unofficially under way). Thus far Maggie Shipstead's 608-page Great Circle (shortlisted for last November's Booker Prize) and George Eliot's 704-page Middlemarch have already been among my brilliant and best election news blocker-outers.
And the moment the election date is known and the true pornography of the campaign begins, I will open my biggest books. I will begin by setting sail from Nantucket aboard the whaling ship Pequod for the long voyage (720 pages) of Herman Melville's mighty Moby Dick. She is a 19th century vessel and so carries no devices on which to receive election news of what's afoot ashore.
Should I return to port at all (for the sea of fiction is deep, dark, dangerous and tempestuous and many a vessel disappears with all hands) it will be well after ye enfranchised landlubbers, stampeded by party political liars and scaremongers, have made your misguided, lubberly choices of your masters.
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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